Monday, April 3, 2023

SciFi/Fantasy Book Review: Those Left Behind by N.C. Scrimgeour


Those Left Behind is a self-published space opera novel by author N.C. Scrimgeour, and it's also the first in a now fully published trilogy. The novel is one of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition 2 (#SPSFC2 - See my earlier SPSFC2 reviews here) semifinalists and is part of the group my group was assigned to judge. For what it's worth, I didn't go into this book fully blind - I was the third of my team's four reviewers to give this a try and I had a vague impression of what the other two readers thought about it - that they liked it but felt it didn't quite satisfy all the ideas the novel brought up. But I've not always agreed with my teammates on certain books, so I was interested to see if I agreed with their perceptions

Alas, I pretty much had the same impression: Those Left Behind takes a seemingly VERY Mass Effect inspired premise and setting and features a plot that follows five point of view characters who are generally all pretty interesting and excellent....but doesn't have enough page length to really commit to any of those characters, leaving me feeling unsatisfied with the book as a whole. The writing and prose will draw you in fairly well, but there's just too much here for the author to handle, and even understanding that it's the first in a trilogy isn't enough to make the book fully satisfying (the similarities of the book to Mass Effect's plot does not help in this regards). I can see how this earned a place in the semifinals, but it isn't one I think should go much farther, even if I didn't dislike it.

---------------------------------------Plot Summary---------------------------------------
The Humans of New Pallas are in dire straits - Tens of Billions of people stuck on a dying planet in the middle of nothingness with only a few years left to survive. First to go will be the poorest of society, surfacers who live underground, but the topsiders who live in the sky will soon come after them and the Exodans who live on Exodus Station in space will come shortly after them. The only way to survive is to escape through the mechanisms of the strange Exodus Station, which might possibly open a portal elsewhere for them to escape...if they can survive the trip. And so the advanced scout ship Ranger is created to explore the path, so that all those left behind on New Pallas can safely follow them afterwards to a better place. The Ranger is populated by a crew of not just Exodans like Alvera (the scientist who led a revolution to overthrow Ojara, an Exodan who performed genocidal experiments on non-Exodans she considered inferior) Kojan (the experimented on son of Ojara), but topsiders and even surfacers like Ridley, a girl who escaped up into the sky through her brilliance with languages. That crew is made up of people who would be the most useful exploring in the unknown, rather than those with political connections, and Alvera swears that they will not abandon those on New Pallas on the other side, but will clear the way for them instead.

But when the Ranger comes through to the Waystation on the other side, they find something they never could have expected: not only is there a galaxy out there populated by various alien species, but those species include humanity already, as well as at least three other species who had similar small enclaves previously come through three other Waystations like Exodus Station, species that have largely come together to form a Coalition to work, live and lead together. But despite that, this galaxy is not peaceful, as a war-like people known as Idran-Var are hidden out there, and their might could shatter everything if the Coalition's military forces, led by its legionnaires, aren't careful. And the Ranger's arrival, as well as the possibility of billions more from New Pallas, threatens to throw off that balance, leading the Coalition to move to bar New Pallas' other occupants from coming across. And so the humans of the Ranger are thrown into disarray and soon find themselves struggling in this strange new galaxy not just to fulfill their own promises, but even to survive.

Yet neither the Coalition nor the Idran-Var are the biggest threat of all, as the Ranger's arrival has triggered something in the Waystations themselves....something that portends the arrival of a greater more dangerous force, one which might have its own plans for the galaxy.....
Again, Those Left Behind is very very obviously cribbed in large part from Mass Effect. The four alien races include not just humans but one race that is basically the Asari from mass effect, who can manipulate things with radiation rather than psychic powers, and have imprisoned and contained individuals who are too powerful and unable to control their power (again like the Asari). The galaxy includes strange waystations that provided pathways through space which were built by an unknown precursor race, and an unknown but clearly hinted to be evil threat is likely coming through those waystations...but the Coalition is refusing to listen to the one person trying to warn them. You have an Asari who is the leader of a crime syndicate (hey it's the Shadow Broker) and legionnaires who are basically specters and well you get the point. This is not necessarily a bad thing - one of my favorite trilogies over the last few years, Valerie Valdes "Chilling Effect " trilogy, is also cribbed heavily from Mass Effect and manages to put its own far more comedic spin on it, but Those Left Behind plays it more straight and thus finds it harder to escape ME's shadow.

That said, I found myself really enjoying much of what are essentially five different individual plots going on in this book, one for each of the five main point of view characters. Kojan for example wants to get away from the legacy of his monstrous basically nazi mother and finds himself on the run with an alien whose people are discriminated against by their own race due to their inability to survive outside of their toxic planet without breathing equipment and his own traumas and issues as well his personal heroism work really well. Ridley is someone who trained in languages to get off her lower class surfacer upbringing and finds herself in a galaxy where universal translators make that seemingly useless...except maybe not, in a touch that's really nice, even if her plotline then eventually goes down a pretty generic heroine who refuses to let people die as she indulges her curiosity. Alvera's struggle to keep her promise to bring everyone back from New Pallas to the rest of the galaxy and her struggle not to be as monstrous as the nazi she overthrew works okay. And then there's out two alien POVs - Niole, who's basically ripped straight from mass effect as she struggles with her power as she finds herself among the warrior people the Idran-Var and finds them not what she expected, and Rivus, the legendary soldier who discovers the greater threat out there and feels flashbacks to memories he absorbed and has to try to convince his friend and commanding officer to turn back to the real threat (again kind of ripped from Mass Effect). Rivus isn't really that interesting but Niole is pretty effective and interesting, even with her plot's origins in Mass Effect being pretty transparent.

The problem is that having five point of view characters who barely intersect once they split up (or start split-up) results in the whole thing feeling disjointed and not together and, more importantly, the book's need to advance the overall plot results in not enough time being devoted to any given individual story. So character development and events happen off page and feel badly missed, like Kojan thinking about how Ridley would've loved something when we've seen them interact for one total page, or Alvera disappearing after a cliffhanger in her own POV and suddenly popping up coincidentally in another viewpoint next, without any explanation how she suddenly managed to do that. I liked each of the individual narratives, but there was just not enough page length for each of them - and it's possible including it would've slowed things down too much, but I guess the problem is trying to do too much. And it isn't all helped by one set of antagonists basically being a group of space nazis led by Kojan's mom who rise up in a way that made absolutely no sense to me - and again happened off page.

The result is a book that I got absorbed in and enjoyed reading but found myself asking questions about things and being partially thrown out of the narrative a bit too often for my liking, resulting in an unsatisfying finish. Add in the fact of how much of this book is cribbed from Mass Effect and well, I have a hard time recommending this too much, even if I wouldn't recommend against it.

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